First he birdied the eighth hole during a Wednesday afternoon golf outing at Valhalla and then he aced the Kentucky Derby draw when Goldencents landed in the No. 8 post and was made the 5-1 third choice for Saturday’s race.
“It should be perfect for him,” said O’Neill, who saddled last year’s winner, I’ll Have Another.
“Perfect” was not the way last year’s Triple Crown series ended for O’Neill and his colt. He came under intense scrutiny after another one of his horses failed a drug test and I’ll Have Another was retired with a leg injury the day before the Belmont Stakes.
As for the birdie — the highlight of an otherwise forgettable round — he said, “That was like winning the Derby on the golf course. It was a par-3 and I just knocked it right in the middle.”
Orb was made the slight 7-2 favorite over undefeated Verrazano, one of a record-tying five horses for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Trained by Shug McGaughey, Orb drew the No. 16 post in a full field of 20 horses. Four horses have won from there, most recently Animal Kingdom two years ago. McGaughey is in racing’s Hall of Fame, but the 62-year-old trainer has yet to win the Derby in six previous tries.
“I think where from he is, we’ll be solid,” McGaughey said. “Kind of hold our position, maybe try to creep in a little bit more around the first turn, and he can kind of watch what’s going on down on the inside.”
Orb comes into the Derby on a four-race winning streak. He won the Florida Derby in his last start.
Pletcher was pleased about where his posse landed in the starting gate.
Wood Memorial winner Verrazano drew the No. 14 post and was the 4-1 second choice.
“We got everything we wanted,” Pletcher said. “No complaints whatsoever.”
There were four spots left in the gate — including the dreaded No. 1 and No. 2 — before Verrazano’s name was called. Being in the No. 14 hole gives the colt the benefit of extra room because of the gap between his spot and No. 15, which is the start of the auxiliary gate.
Another Pletcher horse, Revolutionary, was the fourth choice at 10-1 on the morning line set by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. The colt is ridden by Calvin Borel, a three-time
Derby winner famous for riding the rail. Revolutionary drew the No. 3 post, leaving Borel close to his favorite route on the track.
“Very happy,” Pletcher said. “I think Calvin will be looking to go inside as soon as he could, so starting off inside was a good thing. Super Saver started from four.”
Pletcher won his only Derby in 2010 with Super Saver under a rail-hugging ride by Borel.
Normandy Invasion is the fifth choice at 12-1.
The other 15 horses are all 15-1 or higher, including Pletcher’s trio of Overanalyze (15-1), Palace Malice (20-1), and Charming Kitten (20-1).
Spiral Stakes winner Black Onyx drew the No. 1 post and is one of five 50-1 shots in the field.
That spot has produced 12 Derby winners, tying with the No. 5 hole for the most successful post positions.
“The 1 post might not be ideal but we’re going to make the best of what we can do with it,” trainer Kelly Breen said. “After Saturday we’re hoping to make it the most winningest post position in Kentucky Derby history.”
Oxbow and Will Take Charge will be the record 46th and 47th Derby starters for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner. Both are long shots — Will Take Charge at 20-1 and Oxbow at 30-1.
“The four I won it with I can’t remember the post positions, so it must not be too important,” said Lukas, who could become the oldest winning trainer in Derby history at 77.
The 21st horse on the points list is Fear the Kitten, an also eligible who would need a defection before 9 a.m. Friday, when Derby wagering opens, to get into the 1 ¼-mile race.
If all 20 horses start, the total purse would be $2,199,800. The winner earns $1,439,800.
- WHAT: 139th running
- WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m.
- WHERE: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
- TV: Channel 3
- POST TIME: 6:24 p.m.